Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tonight's Aikido Practice

From earlier this spring:

Though I sat in an adjacent room with a book, I was fairly certain that the muffled screams were not part of the Comedy Channel program on the television. Just after midnight, on the first relatively warm evening in a fortnight, unfriendly activity that might otherwise have remained quiet indoors and unnoticed was not contained. Opening my window did little but confirm a problem: a female voice, a male voice, back and forth, escalating in anger and volume, geometrically rising, accelerating, and culminating in a shrill female scream. And again from the low growl through the final scream, the pattern repeated.

I do not understand the language of the exchange. My thoughts wandered briefly to what might be the cause: Who did what to whom? Who said what to whom? Are they lovers? Are they friends? Are they family? Any number of paths may have lead them to this moment...

The distinct snapping sound, the impact of flesh against flesh followed nearly indistinguishably by the female' scream, shattered my casual daydream.

"Should I call the police?" asked the voice in my bed.

"Wait..."

Again the voices rose, again with a crescendo of a punch or a slap and that same shrill scream.

There's not going to be enough time. "I'm going to take the dog and my phone. Listen at the window."

Disheveled in baggy jeans and a halfway zipped hoodie, hair a mess, dragging my heels with dog in tow, I was convinced I was a typical, nonthreatening sight rounding the bend and walking up the road, coming into their sight. In the center of the road are four people, all perhaps in their twenties; two men and two women. Circling around their collective center, I see that one man and one woman are clearly at odds, the woman's voice beginning its characteristic ascent, the man tense with a reddened face and eyes fixed in a pre-violent state. Another woman stands with the first; another man stands with the other. They seem alarmed but calm.

Cutting deeply through the center, entering as if from nowhere, a middle aged man and his dog now stand between them: "Is everything okay?"

There is a pause, whether real or imagined in the dilation of time...

"Is everything okay?"

The angry woman answers and begins to regain her composure: "Yes... everything is okay."

"I am glad everything is okay..."

In fact, it is not true: Things are not okay. The angry man is clearly on the verge of attack: The tenseness of his posture, the rhythm of his breathing, and again the eyes, they are all telling... For a moment, perhaps I am even the target...

"You have to know, we can all hear you from the end of the block, several houses away. It is so loud, the neighbors must all be worried. Certainly someone will call the police."

On my hip, beneath my sweatshirt, my own phone is pre-dialed. Perhaps my wife or any of the other neighbors had already called; there was no way to know.

"I am sorry. We are sorry. Everything is okay," repeated the woman. The man's friend turned to him and put his left hand on his right shoulder, placing the anger briefly at ease. They moved toward one side of the road and the women started toward the other.

"I am glad." Again, a notable pause...

Dragging my heels, the dog and I shuffled off slowly, remaining in their sight for an unduly long spell, not looking back. There was quiet.

Once in shadows, we turned to observe. The pair of men and the pair of women remained separate, and they remained quiet.

The dog and I quietly patrolled, moving into and out from under a streetlamp across the street, pacing slowly, as if waiting for the dog to do its business... Within five minutes or so, three patrol cars raced up to the corner---no lights, no sirens, but with clear intention. The situation was already diffused. Within a few minutes, one car and then the other two were away. The dog and I sat quietly on a berm among the trees and shadows watching for a while longer. The night returned to quiet.

I wondered whether my aikido would have been proven. Simultaneously, I also realized that it had. Still, the dichotomy of thought reveals how much more I still have to learn.

I dialed back to my bed: "Everything is okay. The dog and I are going to finish our walk."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One Sensei's Dojo

Who has something to show?

From the traditional professor's vantage point, beyond the class' students was a wall of windows looking out toward the student union building, with young coeds climbing and descending the long flights of stairs between here and there. But this was a class conducted in the tradition of Moore's Method: I stood in what would be his position at the front of the class, and he sat near the back of the room, his back to the more pleasant view, focused upon us.

I explained to my peers and the professor that I believed I had some insight into this or that and proposed it as a potential theorem. I had constructed what I believed would be the framework for a proof and wanted to work through my thoughts at the board.

The floor was mine.

May I erase your work?

In Moore's Method, one might take to the blackboard to amend a flawed argument, to propose an alternative approach, to begin a new argument, or anything else.

Proper respect in this setting, our professor explained, included showing proper respect for your colleague's work. It did not matter whether the construct on the board was a work of art or an artifact demonstrating someone's complete and total misunderstanding: after a colleague had put his heart and soul into constructing his proofs at the board, nothing could be more insulting than for someone else to take the stage and, with a single wipe of the eraser, to cut through his work without a thought. Be mindful of your peers.

Yes, of course. Thank you.

In my mind, the problem was extremely complex, and moving my multidimensional understanding from within my mind to the two-dimensional, linear blackboard was problematic. I would look for the elegant solution---the proof in "God's book," as Erdos might say---later; for then, it was a good exercise on many levels to attempt to share what I had as best as I could.

I filled the board at center stage, walking, talking, and exhausting my chalk. Once filled, I moved to the board at stage left, filling it with more pictures, symbols, propositions, and explanations. Occasionally someone, possibly the professor, would interject with a question or comment, challenging points as they arose. As a result of such questions, great discussions can ensue: holes in logic can be revealed, improvements or simplifications can be discovered, gaps can be bridged as a result of the collaboration. But as I moved to the blackboard at stage right, the professor's interjections became more frequent and grating.

What followed remains something of a blur... but it certainly ended as a moment etched permanently in time with a crystal's clarity: There was absolute silence, my fellow students' mouths all agape, eyes opened wide, staring at me with disbelief. The professor sat back lit by the sun, obscuring the details of his expression, but he seemed to be nodding his head slightly...

Others recounted the story and filled in the gaps: The professor had increased the rate and intensity of his onslaught of questions until he finally claimed I was off track. I snapped: In an instant, I spun around and, interleaved with a string of curses, I forcefully and expressively indicated to him that had he been paying attention to me instead of crafting his next nitpicking attack, he might have been able to follow my argument.

Silence, and a nodding head without a face...

I was 26 or 27 years old, having recently completed four years in the Army. I held no particular awe of rank or authority in the military, so I was certainly not going to be intimidated by a person holding the rank of professor. Still, from my seat I was distracted by the thought that I may have made a terrible mistake...

As class ended, I caught the professor at the door and offered my apology.

No longer obscured by the sun, I saw the old man's devilish grin. In response to my contrition he offered these words:

No one said that learning isn't confrontational.

That was the day this professor became my mentor and I became his student.

Over the subsequent years, he and I would spar with tremendous intensity. People in the department certainly must have known that this was our way of hammering through mathematical proofs---and just about any other argument---though I wonder how a stray undergraduate walking down the hall might have been jarred on hearing us. At least no one ever called campus security... And how amazing it was that one could argue, argue, and argue some more against a point with complete sincerity and with such intensity and then, suddenly, be happily stunned with the realization: "Ah---there it is. I see it! You're right!! Good job!!!" At the end of the day when this practice was over, we would sit outside and watch the pretty coeds go by or sit in the pub with a beer---again, watching the pretty coeds go by.

Passion and intensity speak to my soul. Conflict is one arena wherein this energy is expressed. And what is life without this energy? What is the point of life without conflict, passion, or intensity?

And how better to learn to generate, to use, and to deal with such energy than among friends?

In retrospect, this was one occasion wherein I had discovered an Aikido dojo before my physical practice had ever begun.

...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Internalizing Knowledge

Like in Aikido, mathematicians (and other academicians) have a tendency to take pride in their lineage. My instructor and mentor was "mathematical grandchild" of R. L. Moore, a mathematician perhaps more famous for his method of instruction than for his technical results. The Moore Method is described fairly well in the Wikipedia (link). In its essence, the Moore Method is such that the instructor creates the environment through which the student can explore and discover known material on his own as if he was the first researcher to encounter the ideas, and this with only the lightest guidance from the instructor.

To students who are focused upon the GPA and who are reduced by a spoon-feeding educational system to memorizing and regurgitating facts that will likely appear on a test, a class conducted in the Moore Method can be truly terrifying experience. To the intellectually curious, it is absolutely exhilarating!

Surviving the class means that you truly understand the material because you have created the mathematics just as your predecessors have: You followed your nose, you explored, you speculated, you pursued every lead, you found every dead end, you tested what was necessary and what was sufficient, and so forth. You have internalized the material.

Taking such a course, you also explore what it means to be a researcher, working beyond the frontier of what is known and understood. You learn self-reliance and perseverance as you walk a path, repeatedly unbalanced, struggling through plateaus of understanding.

You may also have learned what it is to to think, what it is to learn, and perhaps even what it is to be a different kind of mentor or a teacher.

It is not an easy path, and it is not a path for everyone, but it is a path of Mastery.

...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Spreading Aikido

It is the nature of Knowledge, like Ki or a river, to flow.

Those who stand between the source and the sink may chose to profit from the flow in one of two fundamental ways: either by encouraging the flow or by restricting the it.

When the knowledge is meant to flow, chose to be one who encourages the flow, not one who restricts it. Align your path with that flow, not against it.

Moreover, be wary of those who you encounter who would restrict the flow---or your path. They are decidely un-aiki.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Killing the Buddha

How amusing it would be to have followers who chose to emulate aspects of my life in order to understand things as I do!

But how too I would have failed as a teacher to allow that to happen...

The one thing I know well is myself---and it is debatable whether I am a master of even that. Who I am is a combination of nature and nurture, biology and experience, successes and failures, undoubtedly all unique to me. How I see things and how I understand things are equally unique.

I can share with you what I know, but I can only share what I know as I understand it. That may be sufficient for you if you can accept what I have to offer for what it is worth and with all of the attached disclaimers, the most important of which is this: I am as flawed as anyone.

Though we may walk together for awhile, know that both of our objectives are beyond either of us. In the end, follow your own path, wherever it leads you. Walk with me if you like, but don't follow me.

If you meet the Buddha along the road, ....

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rank & Certification: Student's Perspective

At best, rank motivates some to greater personal achievement.

At worst, it diverts our attention from what is actually important: the Path itself.

A bit over 20 years ago, I practiced t'ai chi for a short while in a small university club. Participants such as myself wore comfortable clothing, as did the instructor. It was not a forms class; rather, it was applications: off-balancing, throws, locks, ... I was not there long enough to develop any expertise, but I did cherish that time. People were there to learn from someone who clearly understood what he was teaching. Students grew in skill and understanding with each practice. Rank was never an issue, since, of course, there was no rank.

About ten years later, I took up my practice of Aikido. Immediately I sensed the similarities in the content and objectives. I also immediately sensed the distinction in teaching methodology, differences that remained regardless of the Aikido style embraced by the instructors and dojos. The Aikido styles always included rank, even if only the distinction between mudansha and yudansha. Crossing from one state to the other is generally viewed as a significant milestone on one's Path.

Questions:

  • Who has the ability to place a milestone on one's Path? Can you place a milestone on my Path, or do I have to accept the milestone and place it myself?
  • How does the existence of a milestone affect one's journey along the Path?
  • How is one's journey affected by relying upon others to set his milestones and to measure his progress toward them or beyond them?

Certainly individuals are judged continuously each and every day. Even when the judgment occurs unbeknownst to the individual, by virtue of the interconnectedness of all things, that individual's Path---as well as the Path of the person sitting in judgment---may change as a result. So, what then can be said of the case when an individual knows a priori that he is to be judged?

"Leading Ki" is a stated principle of some styles of Aikido. Sometimes all that is required to execute a technique is to place something just beyond uke upon which uke can focus. Uke's mind is led away, and his body follows. To a dedicated martial artists, what might be more leading than a black belt (or other colored belt, or a hakama, or rank in general) held just outside of his reach?

Where are you allowing yourself to be led?

...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

An Instructor's Self-Examination

Did you create the club? Did you create the club independently or did you receive a commission to create the club from a larger organization? Did you purchase a franchise? Did you claim a territory?

What title do you claim? Did you assign it to yourself? What does that title assert about your role in the club?

How much money do you have invested in the club's creation and operation? How much ego do you have invested in the same?

Do you charge your club members fees or dues? Do you run the club as a private business, or are the finances open to the scrutiny of the club members? Do you operate the club fundamentally as a for-profit or a non-profit entity? Do you personally profit from the operation? Do you look forward to writing off "club losses" on your personal taxes each year?

Do your students know where their money goes? How it is spent? Or do you conceal these details? Is it none of the students' business how you control the money? Do you rely upon the mystique of traditional Japanese or other relationships (such as sensei, sempai, kohai, etc.) to conceal the details or to avoid such questions?

Are the members treated fundamentally as customers, receiving a service (training) for a fee, or are they treated fundamentally as family where all members have some vested interest in the promotion and continuation of the club? Perhaps there are some of each? Does the club business model reflect and reinforce the social model, or is there a mismatch?

What are the members' responsibilities to the club? What do you insist are their responsibilities to you?

Do you insist that every club member accept you as his or her personal sensei, or can a member practice with your club while claiming a different personal sensei? Do you have objections to members practicing with other groups as well? Does it bother you personally that a member might seek knowledge from someone but you?

What are your responsibilities to the club? To your students? Do you continue to train yourself? Do you bring new information back to your students? Do you plan quality classes? Are you conscientious in your instruction and your care for your students? Are you prepared and on time? Is it your sincere wish that each of your students may surpass your own ability? Do you plan for the students' personal advancement? Are the students aware of that plan? Does your personal ego or pride ever stand in the way of a student's advancement? What do you do to grow the club? To advance the art?

Are the transmission of the art and the conduct of the club business conducted by the same person? Would you allow them to be separately managed, or would you insist on control of both?

If more experienced business persons---administrators, marketers, entrepreneurs, or others similar---were members of the club, would you yield business and financial controls for the betterment of the club? Would you involve them in decisions? Would you accept their decisions even if you disagreed with them, or would you insist on final approval for all decisions?

If a more senior practitioner in your tradition moved to your area, would you yield control of the club in its entirety? Just the teaching? The business aspects as well? Or neither?

Would you be comfortable with the same rules and expectations that you impose on the club if tomorrow they were imposed upon you?

Do you serve the club, or do you own the club?

Is it about the art, or is it about you?

...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Heresy

Is Aikido Japanese? How many people seek Aikido because they believe it is? Because they cling to the mysterious, foreign, or exotic? Because they want to become samurai?

Will we fail to find harmony with our partner if we shake hands rather than bow?

Will we fail to coordinate mind and body if do not wear a hakama? How about if we do not fold our senior's hakama?

Will we fail to harmonize our own spirit with that of the universe if we do not perform Shinto rituals to begin and end our practice? Are they less Shinto if we dilute them or attribute alternative meanings?

Will we fail to find enlightenment if we do not submit to an instructor in a cultish way?

Is Aikido really for everyone, a gift to the world? Or perhaps only to those who can afford shopping from the Bu Jin line?

Is Aikido actually a martial art? Is it just a dance? Is it something like a paired t'ai chi form? Is there a definitive answer? Does it actually matter?

Have you seen a senior nage frustrated with a newcomer uke because the technique does not work? Because uke is not moving "right?"

Have you practiced different Aikido styles? Visited different schools? Have you learned from each that everything you knew from another is wrong?

Were O'Sensei's teachers incensed by his own nonconformity?

How many practitioners of the "Art of Peace" are actually hypocrites in their practice both on and off the mats?

How many times in history have we seen a great man or woman cause a significant ripple in society and time, only to have the meaning lost, misinterpreted by lesser men who failed to grasp the essence or the entirety of the original message? How many people have been fortunate enough to grasp even an aspect of such a teaching, only then to declare that this aspect is the whole? How many fractures and schisms have occurred over time as a result? Reformations? Counter-Reformations?

How many times have we seen heresy declared and excommunication performed for challenging "official" interpretations declared to be dogma or doctrine by lesser men?

Aikido is not an ancient art; O'Sensei died only in 1969. His students, his students' students, and their students, have been fighting among themselves ever since over interpretations of teachings right through the claiming of territory around the world, forming factions, breaking from lineage, forming independent organizations, and so forth. How ironic...

Perhaps Gnostic Aikido is the correct path...

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Ronin's Story, Part 4: Fallow Territory

After nine months of training, my daughter was ready for a break from our father-daughter activity. Wanting to protect my own feelings or worrying that I would be disappointed in her, she broached the subject with my wife who in turn raised my daughter's concerns to me.

Admittedly, I saw this coming. Her attitude toward training changed over time from earlier enthusiasm toward later avoidance. We chatted about it: the issue was not lack of interest in Aikido, but rather this club itself was not a good fit for her. She had no friends, and she was bored. I understood:

The club's instructor was apparently a freshly minted nidan, a fellow with a demanding day job and wife and young kids at home. He did the admirable legwork to establish this club a bit over a year before our arrival, affiliating with one of the rare-but-notable organizations not yet represented in this area. The style of this organization was not his root style (nor was it my own); so, as he learned this style's version of this and that, he did what he could to bring his lessons back to his students.

By the time I had met him, though, it seemed the club was in a rut.

During my daughter's tenure, the class size rarely reached five students, and they were generally high-schoolers with spotty attendance and poor discipline. No one present had yet progressed beyond the first two or three kyu tests. The instructor was himself often late to class and classes frequently seemed ill-prepared, leaving him to revert to his favorite techniques, creating some monotony and unpreparedness for eventual testing, which itself was unscheduled.

The instructor would accept no student under the age of ten; the class hours were later in the day, twice per week from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.; and, fees charged were $50 per month per adult and $45 per month per student.

Though none of the policy, price, or schedule was unreasonable per se, late hours, lack of peers, and expense, would make it difficult for many from my daughter's circle of friends (generally homeschoolers) to join us. Moreover, my personal question regarding the quality or appropriateness of this club for my friend's children meant that we would hesitate before vouching for it or recruiting for it at that time.

Lastly, there was no indication that any of this would change on its own. There simply was no outreach effort to bring in new students and it did seem that the instructor had worked himself into a personal rut. His own personal training tapered off. He lamented the lack of students, but was confident that they would eventually come.

But this is a commodity market: There are over 10 dojos representing seven or more major Aikido styles, all within a 20 mile radius---some holding well-known shihan and other very high-ranking, respected instructors---and that's just the Aikido market. Throw in economic substitutes like tae kwon do, karate, judo, and others that face the man on the street and the situation worsens...

"Location, location, location," yes---but, location is not enough. To claim a territory and then to assume that location is enough is the same as leaving that territory fallow, and that is a disservice to Aikido as a whole. It takes supreme commitment to start a club, yes, but it also takes continuing commitment and personal dedication to sustain it and to grow it.

Sometimes it even requires trust in and help from your peers.

So, while my daughter took a sabbatical, I persevered...

Thursday, June 7, 2007

"Hey! That's *my* job not to do!!!"

I took a non-traditional path through the internship program. Rather than going to different offices to experience different problems, I followed one problem through several different offices, strapping together a workflow of individual technical solutions wherein the output of one office's work becomes the input of another with other offices providing necessary ad hoc support until the final products reach their intended destinations.

Naturally, the different offices are chartered by the organization with different functional duties and they are staffed with subject matter experts to perform those duties. Naturally, it seems, those organizations require the overhead of management, and management and organizations beget processes, procedures, plans, protocols, politics, and other dreaded "p"-words that full under the "b"-word: bureaucracy. And naturally again, fiefdoms evolve, as do struggles for territory. There are even border skirmishes. Most interns do not explore the boundaries---it is hardly necessary; the nature of my path, however, had me carrying my problems across many borders from one territory to the next. I had no allegiance to any office; rather, I was a project's champion.

When you, the fresh-eyed intern, know that what you have is important, it needs to be done, and you need help, it is daunting to encounter the bureaucracy. In a production environment, the office you approach for help is already fully tasked and is reluctant to add work. The office you approach rejects the approach you've taken. The office you approach only accepts tasking from the top-down through a long planning and vetting process (which you have not followed---how could you have known?) and is not geared to accept the bottom-up introduction of solutions to a problems not even on their radar. There are innumerable obstacles and ways for bureaucracies to tell you "no."

As an the intern who does not know any better, and perhaps as the only person who knows what absolutely must be done, you seek allies---people who have gone before you, people who understand your vision, people with talent who can help you---and you push ahead the best you can. You persevere. Inevitably you cobble together a solution (if not the solution), and success begets notoriety.

That is traditionally when the real hellfire begins. You didn't do it right. Your solution doesn't integrate into their processes and systems. Who told you to do that anyway? Worst and perhaps most insulting: You weren't authorized to seek a solution to that problem.

It is one thing to encounter someone on whom you must rely to do his job who is not doing that job, but it is another thing to pick up that person's tools and to successfully do that person's job for him. The result is rarely a "thank you."

And thus, having survived my own internship gauntlet, there is the expression I once proposed to characterize this particular type of obstacle. Anyone who hears it immediately understands. Everyone has encountered it at least once in his life:

Hey! That's my job not to do!!!

Shodan / The Internship Program

For three of the five years I served as an employee at a very large organization, I held the title of "intern." It was an amusing title---given that my peers and I almost all held advanced graduate degrees and several of us had previous experience in industry, the military, academia, or some combination---but it was in fact accurate: We all brought our knowledge and experience, but here we were new. For three years, internship meant taking "tours" inside various offices within the organization with interleaved internal post-graduate--level courses in the work of the organization.

The touring was particularly interesting. For three months, six months, or maybe even a year, the intern is embedded within an office within the organization. The intern learns everything possible about the office: the people, the mission, the processes, and especially the problems. The intern then spends the tour attempting to make a dent in one or more problems---or at least to gain the experience of trying, since there will in fact be extremely difficult or even intractable problems. In the end, after the appropriate pats-on-the-back or other awards, the intern produces a report and then moves along. Wash, rinse, repeat.

From the office's point of view, the intern is at worst free labor---since the internship program owns the intern's billet---but at best is a fresh point of view, a new set of eyes, and possibly the key to solving some problem. It is also true that each intern is in some sense a candidate for longer-term service, since, at the end of each internship, the intern is supposed to find a home and natural choices include those offices with which the candidate has toured. Careers are long, so no one expects a "home" to be permanent; rather, one hopes for a dedicated commitment with mutual benefit for some intrinsically reasonable period of time.

If, on the other hand, the intern begins with an independent streak, then this internship program surely reinforces it as the intern indirectly learns the art of independent consultancy, living outside the mainstream life within organizational boundaries. Such people often bring unique and unconventional perspective. Then again, perhaps it is the people with unique and unconventional perspective who become those who live outside the mainstream.

The preceding paragraphs are the beginning of many great stories...

The Tao of Homeschooling

Before we married, my then-girlfriend and I discussed our expectations, including what we wanted from family life. We agreed that the formerly traditional stay-at-home mom model best fit our vision for our children-to-be, and later we structured our lives to make that vision a reality.

Years later we were married university students. She pursued a degree in elementary education and I pursued degrees in mathematics. In the evenings, we compared notes. She, a military veteran then eight-months pregnant with our daughter, complained about her younger peers crying to their instructor about the hardships of student-teaching, early classes, completing projects, and so forth. I complained about the students who began as would-be mathematicians who, when they realized they could not handle the material, changed their majors to math education. We realized that, on an unaltered path, these people or people like them would be our daughter's teachers. Neither of us wanted that for her.

Our somewhat complicated life of stay-at-home-mom evolved to the much more complex life of the homeschooling family.

Today there is an absolutely vibrant homeschooling community in our area. The personal interaction enabled by proximity combined with the free exchange of information that the Internet enables creates a very interesting dynamic worthy of a sociological dissertation.

In such a community, each parent and each child potentially has something to share, not only with his own family, but with the entire community. Having previously abandoned the notions
  • that knowledge can only be transmitted effectively by professionally trained teachers;
  • that deep subject matter expertise is required before basic knowledge or skills can be transmitted; and,
  • that some external authority must certify one's knowledge for that knowledge to be real;
every homeschooler is now empowered to be a teacher as well as a student. Thus, where one family has a deficit in some knowledge, skill, or experience, there is likely a member within the community who can and will fill that deficit.

Without pretense, we share what we know. Such is our tradition.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Ronin's Story, Part 3: Gaman / Perseverance

On a cold January afternoon, I had the somewhat rare duty of accompanying my daughter, now ten years old, to her gymnastics class---a task normally handled by my wife. We waited nearly twenty minutes as the management tried in vain to locate her class' regular instructor. There had been on-going confusion: Within the last month or two, the gymnasium had changed hands and management and there were problems.

This was not the first time her instructor had been late for class, but this was the first time that the instructor was so late that another instructor was assigned to handle the session. With the matter seemingly under control, my daughter and her class filing off onto the large floor where several simultaneous classes were in session, I wandered about the new construction to locate the parents' gallery.

After placing a brief call, I looked to the floor to find my daughter, but she was not to be found. Within minutes, she had found me in the gallery. She was in tears... "The teacher was mean. Please, Daddy, I don't want to do gymnastics anymore. Please don't make me go back. Please!"

We left and did not return.

I knew my daughter was mature enough to decide that she was through with gymnastics, so I respected this choice. It knew it was not the one event that caused her change of heart, but it was the one event that sealed her decision. I explained and defended her choice to my wife, but I held one lingering doubt: Was my daughter buckling to the pressure of being asked to do hard things? There are challenges in life, some of them physical---how do we handle ourselves when we are pushed to go the extra mile beyond our ordinary limits? I was willing to have her give up on gymnastics, but I did not want to send the inadvertent message that it is alright to avoid challenging or hard things.

"You know," my wife told me that evening, "I saw a flier for an Aikido class just up the block at the village center. Maybe you two can do that together. I wrote down the instructor's contact information; would you like me to contact him?"

...

A Ronin's Story, Part 2: Enso / The Circle

Around 13 years ago, I became a bona fide addict. Missing scheduled training for even one evening affected me deeply, both mentally and physically. Aikido and I shared a symbiotic relationship, with me undoubtedly more dependent upon Aikido than Aikido upon me.

My wife appreciated my passion and even shared my practice right up until we learned that we had conceived a child. My practice continued with our dojo family, and my wife would sometimes come to watch from the sidelines, appreciating the camaraderie before and after practice.

For months after the birth of my daughter, I continued to practice with this group, and my wife and daughter occasionally came, watching from the sidelines, appreciating the camaraderie before and after practice.

Without question we were poor, and when our daughter was born our finances only worsened. We were older students, Army veterans attending college, surviving on monies left over from our Army College Funds after tuition, books, and other expenses were paid. When we could no longer afford Aikido classes, Sensei allowed me to clean the dojo and perform other chores on the weekend in exchange for training, even offering hand-me-down gis and weapons to keep me in uniform. I was not too proud to accept these duties or the gifts, for I knew the value I placed on the opportunity to train with him and my extended family.

Eventually, my wife agreed with me that it was in our best interests for me to accept a summer internship out-of-state, about a five hour drive away from our home in West Virginia. The work there was consuming and I was without a car. It was my first extended period without practice since beginning.

I returned after the summer to my wife and daughter, to graduate school, and to my dojo. A year later, though, I found myself in the same position. I returned to the same employer for another summer, this time bringing my wife and daughter with me. As this second summer came to a close, though, it was clear that we should pursue changing my internship status to that of a full-time employee. We packed our belongings and left the hills and our dojo family behind.

I was invited to join my peers that fall to test for my shodan. There was no question I was well-prepared: Sensei ensured that we already exceeded anyone's expectations before ever recommending us for promotions, and we had indeed practiced over the last year at or above the required level in preparation. Now though, several months out of practice and again penniless, I could not return. Moreover, I did not want to shame Sensei or my peers with less than a perfect performance. I deliberated, decided, and then declared that I was just not ready.

A year or two letter, a close friend we gained from our dojo practice visited us. Like an emissary, he brought a gift from the dojo. "Sensei says to wear it when you are ready." It was a black obi, embroidered with my name in Japanese katakana, prepared in anticipation of my successful test some time before.

The emotion surrounding that moment remains beyond description... It was a testament less to what I had achieved and more to the faith my Sensei and my extended dojo family had placed in me. What we had was truly a dojo in the best tradition.

The belt remained unworn, stiff and bound with a pair of rubber bands, tucked away on a shelf for some time to come as I focused on establishing myself at the office and strengthening my family in our new life. My stature at the office increased, we had a second child, we purchased our first house, we began homeschooling our children, I changed employment, ... Life moved on without Aikido.

I dabbled now and again as Aikido called to me. I visited various local dojos, unconsciously seeking that same spirit, style, and camaraderie that I had left behind. There was no perfect fit; moreover, I rationalized that I did not have the time to invest in recreating the past, nor did I have the emotional energy to develop such deep relations anew.

And it is this end that marks the beginning of this story...

Monday, June 4, 2007

A Ronin's Story, Part 1: Shoshin / Beginner's Mind

With the gentlest, most caring spirit, the elderly lady with the hakama corrected each nuance of both my technique as well as my ukemi after each throw and each pin. I humbly accepted her guidance and worked to incorporate her corrections with each new repetition.

The hakama were deceptive: In this dojo, each student wore the hakama upon passing his first test. Hidden somewhere beneath the himo was either a white, a brown, or a black belt. In my role of a beginner and kohai, I took instruction from each.

I was a visitor to this dojo about 20 miles from home. The regulars were clearly a family in Aikido, and they were very welcoming to me and to others who visited during the few months of my weekend practices with them. I donned my old white belt that came with my first gi purchase about 12 years earlier, and I noted with amusement the dirty band around the tip where there was once a yellow band of tape marking my passing my first test so many years ago.

It is a very humbling experience to become a beginner again, to open your eyes and mind to different points of view, to different interpretations, and to different methods. For people like myself, it is especially challenging to the ego---which makes this practice all the more valuable to me.

But while I was extremely grateful for this particular lesson that I found, this was not actually the lesson that I sought with these people in this place. ...